The Heat Online By Pauline Wong 11/23/2014 9:02:46 AM "A meritocratic system penalises the poor, the disadvantaged because opportunity is not the same. If everything is equal then yes, it is fine to have meritocracy. But how can a kid from rural Sabah compete with a kid from urban Damansara? This is the biggest obstacle in upward social mobility because education is key and we’ve closed that door".
It is certainly an unpopular viewpoint: meritocracy, long touted as the way forward to equality and to upward social mobility for all races, is perhaps the very thing that is hampering that goal.
Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, formerly a senior analyst at Isis Malaysia and a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, told The Heat Online in an interview something most people would shy away from saying: that meritocracy is not perfect, and race-based affirmative action will always be needed as a complement, especially in terms of education opportunity.
Referring to his book, The Colour of Inequality (pic), which was launched recently, Muhammed explores many aspects of inequality – and not just from the racial perspective.
One key point in his book was that education, a key to upward social mobility, is being denied those who need it most in the name of meritocracy.
“A meritocratic system penalises the poor, the disadvantaged because opportunity is not the same. If everything is equal then yes, it is fine to have meritocracy. But how can a kid from rural Sabah compete with a kid from urban Damansara? This is the biggest obstacle in upward social mobility because education is key and we’ve closed that door.
“First, we need to realise meritocracy is not perfect. Again, it’s not a sexy thing to say! I give you an example – a poor student in Terengganu goes to school hungry, goes to bed hungry, but you tell them (because of meritocracy) we don’t care (that you can’t study well), you have to get straight A’s or you’re not going to get in (to university),” he says.
He adds that what is happening now is the “caveat” that a student has to get X number of A’s first, and then preference would be given to the poor. But in truth, it is quite hard for a poor student to achieve straight A’s in the first place.
“How can you promote equality and meritocracy when the playing ground is not level? There needs to be more inclusive policies,” he says.
The way forward, says Muhammed, is to realise that sometimes needs-based policies are needed, and sometimes race-based is needed instead.
“But we don’t want to say this. We want to say meritocracy is the way. But that’s not fair, because the opportunities are not equal. But because we are so obsessed with race, it spoils everything. We have to face it: we still need race-based action, but they should be temporary, and it needs to have a structure, where intervention can be worked out fluidly,” he said.
Undeniably, his viewpoint contrasts with the annual song-and-dance of non-Bumiputera students who do not gain entry into local universities despite perfect scores and straight A’s.
Yet in each of these highly-publicised incidents, there is little mention of whether the rejected candidate came from a poor background or a rich one.
There is also the question of the courses applied for – medicine being the most popular – where placement is tough and places limited. And, interestingly enough, incidents of Bumiputera students getting rejected for a place in a local university despite achieving stellar results is rarely, if ever, highlighted.
What is being raised here by Muhammed is that there is more than meets the eye on the never-ending debate between meritocracy and affirmative action.
Add to that the fact that Chinese students are more successful in applying for places in public universities – 76% in the 2013/2014 intake compared to 72% of Bumiputera, according to Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan – and the so-called “black-and-white” issue of “racial preference” becomes a little more grey.